April 15, 2014

Oops, I think I pooped a little.     Photo: INTA INFORMA

Cow Fartpacks Are Here

Capture methane; help planet

Cows blew a hole in the ozone, remember? Amid the backlash against cows' greenhouse gas production (they are responsible for 25 percent of the methane produced on this planet) and the Crimea crisis, the White House took an official stance on cow flatulence as a part of its climate agenda—let's cut emissions from our methane-blowers by 2020—and Argentina's National Institute for Agricultural Technology may have a small-scale solution: cow "fartpacks."

The fartpack extracts 300 liters of methane a day from a tube inserted into the cow's rumen (its largest digestive tract) and converts big-tummy rumblings into energy.

The project is mostly hot air, INTA press officer Pablo Sorondo explained to FastCo.Exist. Fartpacks show that cow flatulence can be more than noxious gas, but they were not developed for mass production. "Imagine a future farm with a couple of these cows used to provide energy to satisfy the farm’s needs," said Sorondo.

Hey, maybe the fartpack will blow up—but hopefully not like these cows blew up a farm in Germany.

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The Solara 50 can stay airborne for five years without having to land.     Photo: Courtesy of Titan Aerospace

Google Grabs Drone Company

Will deliver remote internet

Google has acquired New Mexico–based drone maker Titan Aerospace. Facebook had reportedly been in talks with the solar-powered drone manufacturer last month; however, it appears Google has stepped in and closed the deal.

Titan Aerospace specializes in unmanned aerial vehicles that have the ability to stay in the air for five years at a time. The obvious application of these drones for technology powers such as Facebook and Google is their ability to deliver Internet service to remote locations and to capture data and images for improved mapping.

For Google, the Titan Aerospace acquisition will likely play a major role in developing the already expansive Google Maps as well as Project Loon—an intiative that sends balloons into the atmosphere to provide Internet access to hard-to-reach locations.

Titan Aerospace appears to be very happy about its new partner, according to a statement on its website:

"It's still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring Internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation. That's why we couldn't be more excited to learn from and work with our new colleagues as we continue our research, testing, and design work as part of the Google family."

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Gamers show cognitive motor control, StarCraft II style.     Photo: Vincent Samaco/Flickr

Your Brain Slows After Age 24

Experience and wisdom compensate

In your late twenties and feeling sluggish? We've got bad news for you: Fresh research out of Canada's Simon Fraser University suggests that humans hit their peak cognitive motor performance around age 24.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE, chose to focus on people from age 16 to 44, rather than the elderly populations commonly observed when analyzing mental decline—and they used a somewhat surprising technique.

To gather information about how these relative youngsters performed cognitively, the scientists studied the results of 3,305 players of the popular computer game StarCraft 2

"After around 24 years of age, players show slowing in a measure of cognitive speed that is known to be important for performance," said Joe Thompson, a psychology doctoral student and one of the study's authors. "This cognitive performance decline is present even at higher levels of skill."

Simply put, after turning 24, our sharpness begins to decline across the board. But that doesn't necessarily mean the final few decades of our lives are universally doomed.

"Once 'over the hill,' experience and wisdom, the consolation prizes of age, are hoped to be sufficient to either attenuate this decline or at least compensate for it indirectly," the study explains. In fact, older Starcraft 2 competitors found ways to outsmart their sharper opponents, winning by relying on tested tactics and efficiency rather than impulsive strategizing.

The older study participants appear to have compensated "for a loss in response speed through the use of game mechanics that reduce cognitive load." Despite lacking the speed of their younger counterparts, these players seem generally smarter about how they go about their business.

Still, this new research might explain why Paul McCartney never topped the songs he penned at 24 for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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Glowing roads.     Photo: Studio Roosegaarde

Glowing Roads Debut in Netherlands

Look like a "fairy tale"

Anyone who's driven on I-70 East through Colorado in the black of night knows that traditional reflector strips aren't always enough to guide you safely along a dangerous road. Well, the good people of the Netherlands may have found a solution with snazzy new glow-in-the-dark roads. 

Originally proposed in 2012 by Studio Roosegaarde, the project finally came to fruition on a 500-meter stretch of the N329 highway in Oss. Speaking to Wired, studio founder Daan Roosegaarde described his vision for the project: "One day I was sitting in my car in the Netherlands, and I was amazed by these roads we spend millions on but no one seems to care what they look like and how they behave. I started imagining this Route 66 of the future where technology jumps out of the computer screen and becomes part of us."

The effect is achieved using a photoluminescent powder mixed in with the paint. "It looks like you are driving through a fairy tale," said one Netherlands news report. Although the road currently features just the side and center lines, future plans include room for snowflake designs that become visible when temperatures drop below a certain threshold, signaling icy conditions.  

Although Roosegarde and his partner in the project, Dutch construction company Heijmans, would like to expand the glowing-road project, there are no current plans for future contracts. Maybe their talents would be put to better use making glow-in-the-dark bike lanes here in the United States.

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Munich has six "Urban Naked Zones" designated throughout the city.     Photo: SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

Munich Legalizes Nudity

But only in "Urban Naked Zones"

Ditch the lederhosen. You can now walk around certain parts of Munich naked, thanks to a new policy.

The German city allows people to publicly roam and sunbathe in the buff as long as they keep to six official "Urban Naked Zones." The parks offer some privacy, but they're not exactly remote.

"While these areas' locations in parkland give them a degree of seclusion, none of them are fenced off or hidden away," the Atlantic Cities reports. "One spot is barely 10 minutes from Munich's main square, located along a stream to which tourists flock."

According to Forbes, Germans are known as being both "nudist obsessive" and "tanning obsessive." By allowing nude sunbathing, the city is just condoning something that's been going on for years.

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    Photo: Getty Images

"Evolutionarily Distinct" Birds ranked

May impact protection status

And the title of "most evolutionarily distinct" bird goes to… the oilbird, a Central and South American species that also happens to be the only nocturnal-flying fruit-eating bird in the world. The species, which accounts for 80 million years of avian evolutionary history, joins hundreds of others in the world's first ranking of evolutionarily distinct birds under threat of extinction, Popular Science reports. 

The study, released April 10 in Current Biology, took seven years to complete. Arne Mooers, professor of biodiversity at Canada's Simon Fraser University, developed an evolutionary tree containing all 9,993 known bird species. Using this tree, Mooers and his colleagues were able to assess how much evolutionary history a specific bird represents compared to other bird species currently alive. 

"There is no single perfect tree of birds," Mooers says. "So we had to do this over, we had to create many millions of possible trees, and then take the average across those trees to get these metrics. Because there's still a lot of uncertainty as to who's related to who. We didn't even have genetic data for every species."

The new rankings will be used in a major conservation initiative called the Edge of Existence program at the London Zoo, eScienceNews.com reports.

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Veterinary superheroes attend to a mutilated African lioness in the field.     Photo: dswtkenya/YouTube

Watch: Sky Vets Swoop in to Save Lioness

Field surgery in Kenya requires quick thinking and guts

Sky Vets, operated by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, mobilizes Kenya Wildlife Service field veterinarians in emergencies through much-needed transportation and logistical services.

The mobile vet service has come in particularly handy in hard-to-reach places. Take, for example, a situation on April 4: Sky Vets was dispatched to treat 11-year-old Siena, a lioness that had been impaled by a bull buffalo on the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The team, led by Dr. Njoroge, arrived to find Siena conscious, limping, and with all of the muscles in her left hind flank exposed. Njoroge's assistants darted Siena, and the doctor quickly set about cleaning her wounds.

Using nothing but saline to disinfect and suturing materials, Njoroge had Siena sewn together in about 90 minutes. The seasoned field vet packed the animal's leg with green clay, gave her both topical and injected antibiotics, and had her back on her feet and with her cubs soon after.

Two days later, Sky Vets received this message from the reserve: "To see this lioness walking with her cubs and also squatting to release urine while she showed little remorse or pain was amazing. We only hope that she continues to improve."

Siena got into trouble on her own terms, but for many injured African animals, the fight was never fair. Poachers have already killed at least 18 rhinos and 51 elephants in Kenya within the past four months, and the country is desperately overhauling its wildlife department.

Kenya's poaching problems have necessitated a need for more technologically savvy and efficient animal protection. Much is being done to monitor poaching—recently through the use of drones and literal watchdogs— but wound care requires veterinarians on-site. That's where nonprofits like Sky Vets come in. 

For a complete list of DSWT's heroic escapades, visit the organization's news updates page.

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